Want to write a sitcom spec script that’ll catch the eye of a producer or agent who will hopefully catapult your career? Stuck? One way to jump start your creativity is to investigate the different themes used in most sitcoms so you can come up with the most effective and enticing story to tell. Don’t reinvent the wheel…just improve upon it!
#1 Failure to Cope
Failure to cope is my life (but that’s another story.) Our protagonist (star) has been thrown an unexpected curveball at work or at home, or is thrust into an awkward social situation. Example: He has to take care of somebody else’s children and he’s a bachelor (Frasier), or the character has been fired (Frasier). He’s been dumped by a woman (Frasier, again) or has a tense situation at home with a relative. (You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?)
#2 It’s Mine and I Want It Now!
Who doesn’t want love, adulation, awards, and money!? God knows we (and any sitcom character) will do anything to get it! The wackier you can make the need—the better it’ll play in your script. Push the envelope. If it’s a get-rich-quick scheme—then you just know your audience will relate to it. They used this recurring theme on Married with Children numerous times. In fact, on a deeper level, Al’s character’s motivation of reaching higher self-esteem—depended upon him pulling off these get-rich-quick-schemes, which of course, he never does.
#3 Physical Snafus or Mishaps
Everything is going fine until our protagonist hurts himself — which in turn throws everyone else’s lives into chaos. Usually some temporary disability is the result, which is amnesia, broken bones, or even impotency (yes, impotency). Let the Viagra jokes begin. Recently, on Two and Half Men, the Jon Cryer character got very ill and, you guessed it, then the Charlie Sheen character got sick…and they’re both supposed to go on a double date–that night! (Hilarious–the hijinx never stopped. Okay. You had to have been there.)
#4 Focusing on the Disadvantaged
This theme can be tricky, and in our politically correct society, care must used in its execution. Areas to investigate: Street crime (a mugging?), the homeless, or even sexual disabilities. When there is an underdog (the victim), you will capture the hearts and minds of your audience which will enable them to keep focused on your story. Just Shoot Me had a brilliant episode where Elliot’s brother, for years, pretends to be handicapped from a childhood accident…just so he can continue to receive sympathy and attention from people. Naturally, Maya doesn’t believe him and tries to “out” his real self. Truly over the top. And that’s the precise execution you need to have your script stand out and be talked about at the water cooler the next day!
#5 Moral and Ethical Conduct
The is the Granddaddy of all sitcom themes. It has been used since the advent of this art form and in fact, dates back to Greek Mythology. You love it…you’ve seen it a thousand times…and you should use it: Protagonist finds a lottery ticket belonging to someone else, wants to crash a party he’s not invited to, finds cash on a park bench, or hides a drunken friend from the authorities. A character kisses another character or gets involved sexually with them and doesn’t want (yikes!) the others to know about it—until the last three minutes of the program (Three’s Company and every other episode of Friends).
#6 Unfortunate Heartbreak
Heartbreak and Love. The “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” of themes. They can’t help but go hand in hand together and can work concurrent with ethical and moral dilemmas, as well. M.A.S.H. used this theme numerous times. A GI falls for a Korean girl—whose strict father will disown her if the union persists—or worse yet, the father threatens to kill the G.I. Does the girl follow her heart or family tradition? Another is where a character is left money in a will by a dead relative, or again, finds a suitcase full of money (Honeymooners). “Yippee! We’re rich Alice.” (Naturally it’s counterfeit, or it’s reclaimed by the real owner.) Word of caution: Somehow you have to come up with a strong twist in this story— because we ALL know what will happen in the end. It’s important that he learn a significant lesson about the actions he took.
#7 Unwelcome Intrusions
One thing that all our characters and we, as well, always want to keep, is the status quo. But you have to rock the boat. Make the character(s) uncomfortable. One way to do that is to have an intrusion: In-laws staying for a week…or in the case of Everybody Loves Raymond they’re there all the time. All In the Family used intrusions beautifully. Other intrusions may be a workman in the house or a surprise birthday that’s on the wrong day. Anything that messes up the day to day experience of our characters’ lives can be used. Monica (Friends) being forced not to be “a neat freak” to impress a new love interest is a type of intrusion.
#8 Mistaken Assumptions
Mistaken Assumption is effectively used on shows with strong ensemble casts like Three’s Company, Just Shoot Me and Friends. The fun of using this theme is that the audience is in on the joke and the other character(s) are clueless. A relative is taken for a family doctor or a married couple at a cocktail party is introduced to each other and pretending that they’ve never met before. They then proceed to make out in front of other partygoers.
#9 Workplace Antagonism
Hospitals (Scrubs), schools (Welcome Back Kotter), and offices (Just Shoot Me, Barney Miller, and Taxi) provide humorous settings for conflict. The closer people are thrown together…the more the humor will emerge from the tight situation. Example: Some character will always think he’s “due” a promotion—and will do everything he can to anger his co-workers to get it. Been there—don’t that, right? (Yawn.) One twist is for the character to NOT want the promotion. In fact, he does everything he can to undermine his boss… and so he fails, while at the same time upsetting the other characters, who expect that he’s “up to something.”
#10 Family Aggression
Now you know why Everybody Loves Raymond is a hit — wives, children, married children, and in-laws. Everybody is in their comfort zone while entering somebody else’s. Conflict, conflict, and more conflict. Somebody has to be the fall guy in plot, which is the basis of this program. Robert and Ray are the victims in Everybody Loves Raymond. Other victims are Jim Belushi in The World According to Jim and George in The George Lopez Show. In fact, in most family sitcoms it’s the male that usually screws up. (Why? Because in life that’s what we do!)
Laugher is contagious and nothing is more contagiously funny than when you use the every day foibles of jealousy, prejudice, miscommunication and even death. If anything outrageous happens in your own family, use it in your script. Use real life situations and heighten the reality for maximum results.
Remember: There are no hard and fast rules. Mix and match. Take themes that might be an A plot and use it as a B plot, instead. (and vice-a-versa.) If a show is heavy with family problems…then use “mistaken assumption.” Always keep the reader (of your script) guessing. Surprise them. Make your script a page turner…and never, ever telegraph where your story is heading.
Peter J. Fogel is a NY based humorist/speaker/author and a proud WGA member of the elite Warner Bros. Comedy Workshop (1999). He’s written on Columbia Tri-Star’s internationally acclaimed German sitcom Rita’s World and his other credits include working in production on such shows as Married With Children, Men Behaving Badly, Unhappily Ever After, Whoopi, and Hope and Faith (to name just a few). He’s also the author of the soon-to-be-released book: If Not Now…Then When? Stories and Strategies of People Over 40 Who Have Successfully Reinvented Themselves.